Friday, May 31, 2013

HBO's "Too Gay for Movie Studios" Behind the Candelabra

     Last year, director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature films (at least for the time being): 2013 would screen his last two movies. In February, we saw the pretty good Side Effects, with its creepy undertones and one-too-many twists that undermined it from being a truly great film. Just a few days ago, people filled into the theater...wait a minute, I mean sat on their couches to witness the last film direction that the intriguing director would ever do (supposedly). That's right: the prolific and interesting director's last effort would air on HBO instead of the local cinema. For us--the audience--it worked out great: the intimate story played out beautifully on our high definition LCD screens, wrapped up in the comfort and the quiet of our own homes. But one must feel bad for the actors--because Michael Douglas (as Liberace) and Matt Damon (as his much younger lover Scott Thorson) give two of the best performances in film so far this year, both of which clearly would have been nominated for Oscars. Any film: not just movies made for television.
     Studios are surely regretting the decision now, since the film has scored some big ratings (especially for Memorial Day weekend). Soderbergh tried to get financing for the film, shopping it around to all of the major movie studios. Essentially--according to the director himself--they didn't want to take a risk financing a movie about Liberace and his young gay lover. It's surprising: the subject and performances are ripe Oscar bait, and there isn't any graphic anal sex--just simulated without really showing that much.
     You'd also think that film focuses more on Liberace, but the story follows Scott Thorson particularly (makes sense, since the film is sort-of based upon Thorson's memoir, titled Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace).Though it's a bit one-sided in Thorson's favor, Behind the Candelabra simply boils down to a love story: an arc that deals with all of the highs and lows of relationships, two partners with huge age differences, and the notion that money and celebrity--with all of its glamorous material objects--can buy love. It's all pretty standard, but the two main performances elevate it to slightly above average. Thorson was an orphan, in and out of foster homes, and when he goes to a Liberace performance with a friend, they end up backstage. When the two main stars lock eyes, it's clear the sparks fly: Thorson is transfixed by Liberace's eccentric skill at music and working a room, and Liberace almost licks his lips at the young and virginal beefcake that stands before him.
     Liberace becomes a father figure for Thorson, and a lot of weird dynamics start appearing between the two. Lib "hires" Thorson to be his right hand man: being his chauffeur, his buffer to the fans and press, that type of thing. Maybe they start falling in love. Or maybe Thorson is brainwashed by the glitz of Liberace's lifestyle and decides that living in a mansion with unlimited money ain't such a bad deal. As their relationship progresses, problems start arising. Lib is obsessed with himself, and he tries to control Thorson's every move. He even hires a plastic surgeon (played hilariously by Rob Lowe) to make Scott look more like himself. it's all narcissistic and gross. Their relationship as lovers merges into other less healthy notions: a father/son and employer/employee dynamic. The rise and fall of their time together is the basis for the film's story.
     Michael Douglas plays Liberace as a man who is constantly concerned with the way he is portrayed--during his charismatic performances and even at home in his personal time. In his obsession with looking and feeling younger, he hits on (or preys on) younger, more attractive men that make him feel like a man decades his junior. But--like a bloodsucker--once he changes his mind about his partner (for instance they annoy him, or try and become more independent instead of being like his little lap dogs), he has no trouble or emotion changing his boy-toy for the new and latest (younger and more hard-bodied) version. He's great in this. But Damon is even better: showing that he can be one of the greatest actors of his generation, his transformation into Scott Thorson, a young and shy "bisexual" who turns into an emotional man with many complexities, is extremely entertaining to watch. He causes you to feel...not just watch.
      As Soderbergh's last movie, it's a worthy addition to his filmography. But it doesn't make any grand statements that will cause it to become a classic that people will remember when they think of his directing efforts. Sure, the whole thing looks great: he captures the glitz and glamour that Liberace personified in the 1970's and 1980's, and instead of overpowering the scenes with flashy direction, he lets the actors act, usually in intimate settings. And that's precisely where Behind the Candelabra shines: the moments when Lib and Scott are all alone, either at the beginning of their relationship, when there was a nervous tension and excitement that shows on Damon's face, or during the downfall, when every argument and betrayal cuts as deep as a plastic surgeon's knife.     (B)


Monday, May 20, 2013

Boldly Going Where Its Gone Before, J. J. Abrams' Second Trek Voyage Still Surprises

     Some people--most of whom stay loyal (to this day) to the original Trek universe with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy--weren't that happy when Star Trek, the sort-of reboot of the aging franchise, was released into theaters in 2009. J. J. Abrams, they thought, didn't understand what made the old Trek films so great: this new film was stylistic with shiny images but ultimately lacked any substance or social commentary. But I tend to disagree--2009's Trek ranked among my top five films of that year. Abrams--like he hopefully does with the Star Wars franchise now that he has taken the reins--shot a full dose of adrenaline into the tired franchise, bringing in new actors and an exciting eye for sci-fi action set pieces.
       After the events of the first film, which used an interesting time travel device to sort of form an alternate Trek universe where anything could happen, curiosity peaked: could Abrams' second Star Trek directing effort confirm his status as the savior to the long-running franchise that last landed dead on arrival in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis. The short answer is yes: Star Trek into Darkness is an incredibly entertaining entry into the plethora of Trek films, a wonderful summer blockbuster that left me completely enthralled during most of its run time. It's packed full with exciting action and ideas that parallel Earth's problems in decently interesting fashion. It's also as good or better than the last Abrams journey with Kirk and Spock.
     Star Trek into Darkness is incredibly exciting from the opening musical theme to the end credits, and it's best to know as little as possible before entering the movie theater. So let's keep this simple: After breaking some Federation rules to save Spock (Zachary Quinto, who has never been better and provides the character with a wonderful amount of humor and depth), Kirk (Chris Pine, who is Shatner-like but still makes the character his cocky own) loses his job as the Captain of the Enterprise. So much of this film is about the relationship of these two characters, and they seem much more comfortable this time around: their scenes together are filled with intensity or humor, depending on the situation. Quinto especially takes a step forward. Brimming with confidence, his Spock is a character that uses his human and Vulcan roots to his advantage in any situation.
     It's not spoiling anything to say that--obviously--the crew gets back together when a force threatens to decimate the federation and potentially start a war with the powerful Klingons. Everyone's back and better than ever: playing Uhura, Zoe Saldana plays a more prominent role, bringing out the more human aspects of her lover Spock when he forgets to think about the other people who care deeply about him. The great Simon Pegg is back as Scotty, and (as always) he provides much of the humor in the film--and he also gets to run around and kick-ass much more on this go round. Anton Yelchin and John Cho (as Chekov and Sulu, respectively) take more of a backseat this time, but they still make the most out of their minimal roles. Karl Urban's Dr. Bones still provides some needed sarcasm and humor, especially his interactions with the new sexy crew member portrayed by Alice Eve.
     Sure, the Enterprise crew is great and they fit together nicely. But the real surprise of Star Trek into Darkness is a character by the name of John Harrison, played by the up-and-coming great character actor Benedict Cumberbatch. His role is a mystery for much of this Trek voyage. Is he a terrorist? Is he a traitor? Whether he's either or both, Cumberbatch forms a villain that is unique while also providing a wink of the eye to the lore of the Trek world. Part of his arc reminded me of Loki in The Avengers: this is a powerful being whose motives are unclear, yet trusting him is a decision that must be made no matter how insane that decision seems.
     There's real tension in this Trek. Forget about the action for a second, which is wonderful in its own right (the phaser battle in Klingon territory, the space jump from one ship to another, and an epic showdown between Spock and Harrison come to mind). Many of the personal vendettas and relationships jump to the forefront: Kirk spars with just about anyone, but especially people of ultimate authority. This time it's Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (portrayed with zeal by Peter Weller, the titular character of the original Robocop films), who has motives of his own that pertain to the fate of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Kirk and Spark are always sparring, but this time their arguments hold meaning that extend beyond life and death situations. And Harrison holds a long back story that involves the history of the Federation and its unusual leanings toward military missions instead of space exploration.
       There is one major thing that Star Trek into Darkness does that extends beyond the strengths of this film: it shows that J. J. Abrams has the strength and fortitude to turn around the Star Wars universe, too. His ability to stage exciting sci-fi battles, his eye for creating humorous situations while avoiding corniness, and his willingness to acknowledge the happenings of previous incarnations in the franchise while still keeping his own entries fresh are things to be completely admired. Sure, some of Star Trek into Darkness feels familiar (a bit of it feels too similar to 2009's version). But the familiarity doesn't detract from the epic-ness of the scale, excitement, and wonder that Abrams provides with nearly every aim of the camera.     (A-)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Written Word Review: NOS4A2

     Joseph Hillstrom King has written three novels: Heart-Shaped Box, Horns (which is being adapted into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe), and this month's NOS4A2, along with a very popular comic series called Locke & Key. He is also Stephen King's son. Obviously, writing stories in the horror universe being of the same blood as the grand-master has its ups and downs--it's probably pretty easy to get published, but it's extremely difficult to be taken seriously on merit alone. But Joe doesn't have that problem: under the pen name of "Joe Hill", the son of Stephen King (he actually has another son, Owen King, who has a critically-acclaimed first novel titled Double Feature out this month, too) had people fooled for almost a decade, crafting great supernatural stories that ranked among the best of new writers.
     NOS4A2 is a beast--a hungry beast at nearly 700 pages that will annihilate minutes off the clock and the skin off of the tip your thumb from turning pages. It's that good: seemingly taking to task the reputation of his father's work head on (instead of shying away from it), Hill has crafted one of the most entertaining and gulp-inducing books so far this year, and it's not only his best novel, but as good as the early Stephen King works (though I'm hesitant to compare, because it only fuels the fire of arguing that Joe Hill is only popular due to his dad).
     NOS4A2 is about a bad man with a bad car. Charlie Manx is an old geezer who has a scary streak and a penchant for taking children for a ride: he doesn't just drive them down the road and molest them, though. He takes them--driving his 1938 Rolls Royce (the licence plate is the title of the book, and is also a vampire reference, to state the completely obvious)--to a place called Christmasland, where every single day is Christmas--presents get opened, rides are ridden, beautiful snow falls.  But Chuck's car doesn't run on gasoline: it runs on the souls of the children he steals, slowly taking away from them any semblance of humanity or empathy that ever existed in them.
      Christmasland exists as an "Inscape", which is a place somewhere between reality and thought. Only certain people can reach these "Inscapes"...similiar to the gift young boy Danny has in Joe's dad's The Shining. Victoria McQueen (also known as "Vic", or "The Brat") is a woman who is really great at finding stuff: as a child, she would ride her bicycle to the dilapidated covered wooden bridge in her small town. Only when she crosses it, she can seemingly teleport (for lack of a better word) to places in the world where she needs to find something specific--a lost bracelet, other people who know about "Inscapes", etc. As a child she has a run in with Charlie Manx. I won't delve deeper, but the novel takes place across decades and involves Vic as an adult, when a new bike and a new problem come crashing into Vic's life.
     If it sounds corny, it's only because the book is so hard to explain. Unlike his more supernatural and surreal last book, Horns (which I loved), NOS4A2 is more straight-up horror. One character in particular, a man-child who comes under Manx's spell and takes people to his "House of Sleep" by the name of Bing, is very well-characterized. He's the type of dude who keeps women chained in the basement and no one on his street knows any different. But Manx is the true villain here: a man who is so nice and open, but one who would do anything to suck the life out of the nearest child with his metaphorical sharp teeth.
     Above all, though, NOS4A2 is about relationships: mother and child, father and child, father-figure and child. The lengths that parents go to to protect their children. How a child's thoughts of their parents keep them from succumbing to powerful forces. Joe Hill has made a statement with his third novel: if you're looking for the next big name in good horror fiction, since Stephen King is getting up there in age and output, look no further than the spawn of Stephen King.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3: Tony Stark's Swan Song?

     After the original Iron Man (which paved the way for the beloved Marvel comic book heroes to experience new and exciting directions) and Iron Man 2 (which--though still plenty entertaining--was a slight step backwards in the series), the mega-million-dollar franchise decided to take a chance with some fresh blood. So Jon Favreau, the director of the first two films, left. Maybe after making the weak Cowboys and Aliens the studios figured they would go in a different direction? Whatever the reason, it was a good decision: enlisting Shane Black, who rose to immense fame in the late 1980's writing Lethal Weapon (and subsequently other high-action films with sharp scripts), to write and direct, Iron Man 3 is an interesting and highly entertaining entry into the comic book film canon, a superhero film with actual tension--and although it's a bit scattershot at times, it's an admirable end to Downey Jr's trilogy as Iron Man, if they don't convince him to make another for tens of millions of dollars.
      At this point, Robert Downey Jr. portrays the character of Tony Stark as easily as the character Tony Stark slips into his Iron Man suit as he gears up to destroy Earth's newest threat--and with Shane Black's script that is so quick with the one-liners and sarcastic quips, the lively laughs fly by faster than Stark's new version of the Iron Man suit that shoots at him piece by piece like he is actually Magneto of X-Men fame. And that's how this Iron Man film starts, with Stark tampering with some new upgrades to his suit. It also ties into The Avengers in important and intriguing ways: ever since he almost died during those events with the alien invasion, Stark has started to notice anxiety creeping into his life, occasionally becoming so severe that he becomes almost completely incapacitated for a moment of time.
     But this wouldn't be a very interesting Iron Man film if the biggest threat to Tony Stark was shortness of breath and thoughts of impending doom. Ben Kingsley portrays The Mandarin, a terrorist that bears a resemblance to Osama Bin Laden but speaks like southern "baptist preacher". You'd never guess that it was the same Ben Kingsley that was so ferocious in Sexy Beast: his vocal inflections are humorous and curious here, and though his role is extremely peculiar in Iron Man 3, he is still a highlight in his limited time. It seems like he is control of a bunch of minions that hold some sort of special power, a regeneration ability that is as far-fetched as it is dangerous. This isn't a comic book film more rooted in reality ala Nolan's Batman trilogy (though its nearly as serious and exciting at points): The Mandarin's henchmen glow red like Hellboy and one shoots fire out of his mouth like a dragon in Game of Thrones.
     And Guy Pearce makes just about any film better: here he portrays Aldrich Killian, a once-geek-now-slick scientist who has a major interest in all of the cronies that are "infected" with the fiery skin. Pearce is a total scumbag in Iron Man 3, and he performs his snake-like maneuvers with a winning smile and violent temper. Him and Downey Jr have some great scenes together, helped along again by Black's script which made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (his first directing effort) so watchable.
     And some of the action scenes are truly phenomenal,  better than most anything (except the climax) that was in The Avengers. To prove to The Mandarin that he isn't scared of him one little bit, Stark airs his home address over television screens, the Iron Man way of saying "Come at me, bro!". And come at him The Mandarin does, in an exciting and impressive scene that involves the destruction of Stark's billion dollar compound. Another great scene: air pressure is lost in a plane, an explosion happens, and people start getting sucked out of the side of the plane like pneumatic tubes,  flying through the blue sky. Sure, it's been done before--Iron Man zooming through the sky, saving falling people. But never to this extent...and never this well done and realistic. And the climax is impressive: Black clearly has a knack for staging long action sequences that have ebbs and flows and different characters performing different feats of excitement. In fact, he would would be a great choice for The Avengers sequel, if Joss Whedon wasn't creating it.
     Like any third act in a franchise, it's very hard for the characters and situations to feel original and innovative. Black manages to here, but he also throws so many ideas at us with breakneck speed that sometimes Iron Man 3 feels like a gigantic entertaining jumble of un-fleshed out plot points and situations. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, whose work with a personal trainer clearly paid off) plays a more significant role this time around, and for once Tony Stark gets thrown into situations where he is truly powerless. It's a film that feels like a good ending point for Downey Jr's trilogy of Iron Man films: and much of the success of all three movies lies directly in his hands, his quick trigger with the witty screenplays, his ability to portray the charming cockiness of Tony Stark. Between The Avengers and now Iron Man 3, Marvel now holds the top two opening grossing weekend records of all time--and it's well-deserved.     (B+)